A sympathizer of chavismo holds a flag and a Hugo Chávez doll while participating on the march commemorating the 24th anniversary of the February 4, 1992 coup. Photo credit: Oswaldo González. Source: Ministry of the Popular Power for Communes and Social Movements, Bolivarian Government of Venezuela
As I was doing some online research for a manuscript that will be sent to a peer-reviewed journal, I came across with the news that Venezuela observed the 24th anniversary of the event that made Hugo Chávez a household name: the military coup that he led in February 1992. The Bolivarian spin machine made sure that the significance of that event as they understand it was not lost on anyone (my translation):
With joy and patriotic sentiment, the revolutionary people commemorated this Thursday, February 4th, the 24th anniversary of the civic-military rebellion [..].
This commemoration began on February 4th, 1992, when Chávez, along with a group of military patriots and sectors of the people, initiated the struggles against the policies that favored oligarchic sectors and harmed the Venezuelan people.
In that context, the date represents the popular insurrection against neoliberalism and the capitalist system that devoured the resources of the nation.
It is important to highlight that this act of patriotism and gallantry was declared Day of National Dignity because it is considered one of the most transcendental events in Venezuelan history.
Every country can establish as many of these big days as it wants and justify them as it wants. But only so long as the justification makes sense. At a moment when the Venezuelan economy is in unquestionable shambles and the opponents of chavismo have made it all the way into becoming the majority in the National Assembly (the Venezuelan legislature), this particular commemoration has all the trappings and feel of a rally-around-the-flag ploy, conveniently set up to prop up the strained morale of chavistas and make everybody forget that things are just not good. Chavismo continues to be under siege even if it also continues to have the lion’s share of political power and a military that is unabashed about being ideologically pliant. Every time President Maduro insults those who do not agree with him, he gives Donald Trump a run for his billions.
I have always thought that the Venezuelan people (or rather, that 59% of valid votes for president in 1998) cannot be blamed for bringing Hugo Chávez to power. He was a product of the circumstances. In general terms, Venezuelans in February 1992 lived under a political system dominated by Acción Democrática (AD) and Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente (COPEI) — two political parties that were practically indistinguishable ideologically, increasingly unrepresentative, and too willing to turn the other way rather than to crack down on corruption. The system, known by scholars as puntofijismo (named after its constitutive 1958 agreement, known as Punto Fijo Pact), was also fueled by oil revenues that were heavily spent on patronage and what was essentially a large welfare state. But by the early 1980s, when the global price of oil plummeted and Latin America entered its “lost decade” after the onset of the foreign debt crisis of 1982, the economic panic button was pressed. AD and COPEI governments tried to remedy the situation with neoliberal measures such as a sharp currency devaluation and spending cuts, but their unpopularity contributed to discredit the parties further and led to the 1989 street riots known as “caracazo,” as well as 5,000 more demonstrations in the following three years. Meanwhile, Hugo Chávez found time from his duties as an army lieutenant colonel to become a full-time conspirator and organize, along with other like-minded military officers, the February 1992 putsch.
What is interesting is that Chávez took his time in embracing socialism, so one can only wonder how much of a “popular insurrection against neoliberalism” his coup really was. Scholarly literature does cast a shadow of doubt: In “Venezuela: An Electoral Road to Twenty-First Century Socialism?”, Gregory Wilpert suggests that Chávez did not decisively declare himself a socialist until 2005 and his leftist inclinations were vague before that time (including his 1998 presidential bid); in “Crisis and Regression: Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela”, Heinz Sonntag argues that the circle of military conspirators who orchestrated the coup were less interested in socioeconomic revolution than in a purely political revolution (as in radically changing state institutions); and in “Explaining Democratic Deterioration in Venezuela through Nested Inference”, Michael Coppedge points out that the main goals of the February coup were to remove the elected but detested government, end impunity, and rekindle prosperity — goals widely shared among Venezuelans at that time. None of them, however, indicates the type of socioeconomic change advanced by 21st century socialism (as a matter of fact, two of Chávez’s co-conspirators, Yoel Acosta and Jesús Urdaneta, eventually distanced themselves from him once he embraced socialism). Coppedge also presents an interesting argument: ordinary Venezuelans got morally outraged because they were paying the consequences of corrupt adecopeyanos plundering oil profits and running the economy to the ground. Venezuelans did oppose neoliberalism violently, but Coppedge suggests it was because the economic crisis was not deep enough to adopt a “wait-and-see” stance. After 1992, says Coppedge, when a non-adecopeyano government implemented more neoliberal policies to reverse a more prolonged crisis, there was no second “caracazo.” In any case, it seems reasonable to think that neoliberalism was opposed in 1989 because it deepened an economic crisis that should not have happened in the first place, not because of anything reprehensible about neoliberalism itself. In this sense, the motivation for Chávez’s sabre-waving has more in common with the rationale behind the traditional Latin American coup (i.e. the military stepping in to save the country from its inept elected rulers) than with a crusade against neoliberalism. Forgotten by the current powers-that-be in Venezuela in the midst of that splendid display of ideology is the fact that a second military coup was carried out nine months later, the following November.
These statements do not intend to rehabilitate puntofijismo. If anything, they echo Jennifer McCoy’s thoughts in her article “Chávez and the End of ‘Partyarchy’ in Venezuela” on the dangers of over-institutionalization: the old parties grew so attached to their traditional ways that they could not — or perhaps did not want to — see the writing on the wall and adapt to new demands and new political actors. But by the same token, these statements do not justify anything that Chávez, Maduro, and their respective governments have done until now.
Rather than being the political equivalent of the Book of Genesis (or the Higgs boson, if you prefer), the 4F story is more like a fish tale.
PS: As a way to show that history repeats itself, especially to those who do not learn from the past, President Maduro has decreed the same currency devaluation implemented by adecopeyano governments. Most astoundingly, on a televised 5-hour speech, he expressed his hope that the people would understand his decision, alluding to the “caracazo” – and perhaps hoping that something similar will not happen on his watch.
Coppedge, Michael. 2005. “Explaining Democratic Deterioration in Venezuela through Nested Inference.” In The Third Wave of Democratization in Latin America: Advances and Setbacks, ed. Frances Hagopian and Scott Mainwaring, 289-318. New York: Cambridge University Press.
McCoy, Jennifer. 1999. “Chávez and the End of ‘Partyarchy’ in Venezuela.” Journal of Democracy 10(3): 64-77.
Sonntag, Heinz R. 2001. “Crisis and Regression: Ecuador, Paraguay, Perú and Venezuela.” In Democracy in Latin America: (Re)Constructing Political Society, edited by Manuel Antonio Garretón M. and Edward Newman, 126-158. Tokyo: United Nations University Press.
Wilpert, Gregory. 2013. “Venezuela: An Electoral Road To Twenty-First Century Socialism?” In The New Latin American Left: Cracks in the Empire, ed. Jeffrey R. Webber and Barry Carr, 191-212. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Postscript (May 30, 2017): The Wall Street Journal reports that Goldman Sachs (yes, that Goldman Sachs) recently bought $2.8 billion worth of bonds issued in 2014 by the state-owned oil company, PDVSA, and initially sold to still unknown private investors. It was declared that the transaction was made with a London-based broker and not with the Venezuelan government itself, but GS is said to believe that a change in that government can increase the value of Venezuela’s debt if the new powers-that-be make changes in economic policy (ka-ching!). The Venezuelan government justified the deal, which is said to have boosted the country’s hard currency reserves, on the grounds that it needed more of them.
Of course some will argue that this gives GS every excuse to coax the US government into carrying a a forcible regime change in Venezuela and install a puppet government, in pure imperialistic fashion. That kind of narrative never seems to go out of style. And the Venezuelan opposition has already scolded GS for allegedly profiteering out of the suffering of citizens, to the point of announcing that the National Assembly will investigate what happened (all but completely disabled under Maduro’s orders, I wonder how). But for all we know about the private investors who bought those bonds, they may even be people within the “boliburguesía” (those who profiteer out of their connections with the Venezuelan government) — a deal that reeks of corruption. And if they were sold to anti-chavista investors, after so much vitriol from Maduro against what Chávez used to call “the rancid oligarchy”, it reeks of hypocrisy. Additionally, the WSJ piece points out another interesting thing: rather than making sure Venezuelans do not have to wait hours in line any longer to get toilet paper and other daily bare necessities, the government has made paying off its debt (including what it owes to Russia and China) a priority so as to avoid having to deal with the very negative consequences of a default. They could include the seizure of oil shipments — the ultimate chokehold for an economy that runs on oil, both literally and figuratively.
In other words, Maduro is doing what he and other radical democrats have accused neoliberal governments of doing — pleasing creditors to keep their heads above water while throwing ordinary people under the bus. It is just like what the Puerto Rican government is now doing under orders from the federally-appointed Fiscal Oversight Board.
So much for Venezuelan National Dignity.